Every day in Bagan I went to bed exhausted, covered in dust and sunburn; and happy.
So. Freaking, Happy.
This is for sure a place of magic. And so many times during my three days here I had to remind myself that I was indeed experiencing this. That it was indeed real life. In fact, I took picture of my knee and my feet and bits of my body in pictures to make sure that I knew that, yes, I was there with that view. It’s like the reality of my dusty clothes and my aching body weren’t proof enough! But even as I’m writing this I’m doubting that it was real.
In hopes of spreading Buddhism in Myanmar, a King decided to build thousands of pagodas in Bagan. Thousands. In such a small area!!! Exploring this area, I thought many times ‘How on earth could anybody ever think that this amount of pagodas wasn’t enough?!’ There are clusters of 3, 4, 5 temples. And 500 meters over, there’s another cluster of 2, 3, 4 temples, and then continue on 200 meters and you’ll find another 1 or 2 pagodas. And more or less, they are all the same! You walk in, and there is a statue of a Buddha. You walk around in the square hallway that is inside, and you see a Buddha on each side. And each one basically has this format (unless it’s smaller and then you just walk in and there is just one Buddha). And if they’re getting really impressive, somewhere within is a dark staircase (usually really narrow with awkwardly large steps and a really low ceiling) leading up to the top of the pagoda. I have no clue what on earth these staircases would have been used for at that time, but for us they lead to beautiful places to watch the sunsets and sunrises.
The first day I had met a Brazilian girl, Naira, who I explored with! We went and got e-bikes (yup, sorry mom! I finally did it!) and just headed down the main road. We stopped at every temple that looked interesting enough, and because of this we saw lots! Most of the ones we went too were quite touristy, and we were shocked at how pushy people were while trying to get us to buy things! That part got old real quick, but the pagodas were for sure impressive. It was weird to see some of them though because they were undergoing reconstruction and restoration. The majority of the temples in Bagan are old, crumpling, red and dusty. But the ones that were undergoing the restoration were looking out of place. Regardless though, they were all beautiful. We stopped for lunch and both agreed we were poooooped¸ and went back for afternoon naps. Just before evening we headed out again to climb one of the more popular temples to watch the sun go down.
We were told about this specific temple, but had a bit of trouble finding it. We were worried about missing it so we decided to just try another temple to see if we could climb up and watch from there. We pulled over and headed into a temple while we noticed a local guy herding goats nearby. All of a sudden his head popped in one of the doors and said a friendly “Hello!” Seemed harmless. There were no stairs so we turned around and went back towards our bike. Next thing I know Naira says to me “Did see that?! He’s masturbating!” My reponse was a shocked “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT. NO!”
I turn around, and sure enough, he was standing in the doorway of the pagoda we were just in. With his shorts at his knees. Jerking off. At us.
I couldn’t believe it.
My first thought was to hurry the heck up and get away from him. Once we did that, it turned into full out feminist rage. How can it be that as a female I have to cover my skin so much. My knees, my shoulders and everything in between. I can’t enter a temple unless I do so. And in fact, there are some temples where I am restricted to go into, or around certain parts, because of my gender. But here was this pervert of a man not only half naked, but being outwardly inappropriately sexual towards us. In. A. Freaking. TEMPLE. I am STILL fuming from this. I mean, I understand that it not acceptable in terms of Buddhism, or really any religious or social standard. But it still really gets to me. I’ve felt so safe in this country, and that was the first time that I really didn’t. And the more I think about it, the more shaken I am about it. What if I was by myself? What if there were two of them? What if he tried to approach us? If the circumstances were just a little bit different, could this have been a potential rape? Would I have been able to defend myself? How dangerous was that moment? He seemed harmless at first, I smiled and laughed and returned his greeting to us. He was just a couple of feet away from me. What if he had done it right then and there? What if she didn’t notice that was happening? What do I label this as? These are all really scary questions for me. But I’ve had to remind myself that I’ve been travelling for 3+ months, and this is the only time anything remotely bad has happened to me. That not everyone is a pervert or over-sexual or inappropriately sexual or anything like that. That this was a weird one-off thing that could have happened at home, in a country that also has a lot of regular, appropriately behaving people.
At this point, a week and a half later, I feel better about it. But it definitely took a few days of me realllllly being hyperaware of my surroundings and unjustly assuming the majority of men around me were about to do something equally inappropriate. I was creating all of these horrible scenarios in my mind of horrible things like that that could happen to me at any moment. Thankfully when I vocalized them to Berdie, a Dutch girl who joined us for the next day, I was able to let go of my irrationality and move forward with my regular levels of caution and awareness.
The next morning, Berdie, Naira and I headed out for more exploration. We did equal amounts of the untouched temples off the path a bit and the more popular touristy temples. There was one in particular that was off the bath that was awesome. We were heading down a sandy back road when we saw some temples. There was another group of people just leaving and encouraged (okay, maybe dared) us to climb the largest one. This one wasn’t like the others, it didn’t have anything inside. No Buddhas. No hallway to walk around. No stairs. We walked around wondering how the heck they climbed it, and then we just went for it. Sure enough, we made it up to the top. Somehow! And it was GORGEOUS. Seriously that view was breathtaking. From there we could just see the temples go on and on and on and on and on. Surrounded by dusty, dry earth, palm trees and farmland. And of course more temples.
That got us hooked. We wanted to climb more!
We spent the next while trying to explore more to climb, but it didn’t seem so easy! And in the sun and head it was a bit taxing. Naira tapped out and decided to take it easy until sunset when she would just go to a close and easy one, but after a short tea break Berdie and I headed back out in full exploration mode to find the perfect sunset spot. Turn out, the perfect spot was the one we climbed early! So when the sun started to go down we raced back to climb that. On the way we ran into one of the guys from the group that was their earlier and the three of us climbed it to.
Together, we watched the magic that happens when the sun starts to make the sky drip with all sorts of colors. Purples, golds, reds, blues. Our conversation was honest and funny and open. The moment was perfect.
We stayed up there well after the sun disappeared and the air had started to cool off. And if the climb wasn’t dangerous enough in the first place, we added the darkness into it and somehow survived the descent. His battery was almost dead so we followed him out of the sandy roads towards the next town to make sure he would make it back okay, and then in the freezing cold air we headed back towards the town we were in.
The next day Berdie and I took this whole “off the beaten path” thing to a whole new level. It got a bit out of hand. We started off on the main road, found a distinct dirt road to go down which led to some temples, and then followed a tiny little trail that led to, well, a big bushy area that we got stuck in. Once we got out of that, we landed on another distinct dirt road that, again, quickly turned into a tiny little train that, well, let us into some less-than-desirable area. The deceiving part of this was that we could see the temples. They rose well about the trees and we could see exactly where they were and that they weren’t far, so we figured that if we followed these teeny-tiny paths in that general direction that we would end up there. We learned that, well, that for sure was not how that worked. At one point we were so lost and ended up in a field with absolutely NO path (I don’t even know how), and the area that we came from was so brutal to come through that turning around and going back through the loose sandy terrain was not really a viable option. So we had to go forward if we were going to make it out of there eventually. We forced ourselves through cornstocks and plants and bushes and trees until finally we emerged onto a dirt road. Sweaty. Grumpy. Covered in dust, thorns and weeds. Definitely not the best part of our day. But despite that, we kept going! We definitely stuck to paths though. And even with those, Berdie ended up running into a branch that had thorns and she had those scratches for days afterwards (I couldn’t look at her without laughing at them!). It was all worth it though because we found these two absolutely incredible temples. Both were absolutely deserted; absolutely no one to be seen. And both had stairs leading right up to the top. The views from the tops of these temples made all of that hard, tiring, sweaty adventure worth it. No other people, just dust, temples, palm trees. And us! Two new friends who were so grateful to be experiencing this. Together!
We watched the sunset from one of them and before it got too dark we got back on our bikes to go back to town. This is when we realized that all the terrain we had forced ourselves through earlier – all the times being stuck in the deep sand, all the wrong turns and solid efforts to make it through – had used up so much power, leaving us with seriously low batteries. CRAP. Berdie definitely had more power than I did, and once mine really started to lose power we had to get creative. As I was holding down the accelerator she went along beside/behind me with her foot on the back of my bike to push me forward. When she was too uncomfortable doing that, I held on as she went in front and pulled me along. Inevitably we realized that was actually a really unsafe thing to do, even though we were going only like 5-10 km/hr. I was praying for downhill sections so I could just coast, and when I couldn’t do that I pushed my feet along the around, and when I really had lost power I got off and started to push it. Berdie ran out of power too right at the end, and just as we entered town and thought we still had so much distance to cover, the bike rental place was right beside us! Hallelujah! We made it back. Somehow.
A day full of mishaps. But a day ending with so much gratitude.
The last sunrise of Bagan was for sure the most spectacular. Berdie and I rose early and headed out into the icy morning. We went to a temple that was popular for sunsets, but no one was there! We thought for sure there would be at least a couple of other people there, but lucky us!
We knew that this temple would be a bit of a risk. A huge part of what makes the sunrises of Bagan so spectacular is the amount of hot air balloons that go up into the sky during it. The combination of the old temples, the dust and mist, the mountains in the background, and the ooey-gooey colors of the sky with the balloons is seriously just breathtaking. The thing was that we didn’t know where the balloons would rise from and we thought that maybe this temple would be closer to the mountains that the sun would rise over than them. But, we were lucky! It was just before where they went. So instead of the balloons being in the distance, we had front row seats. We could even hear the fire being ignited to lift the balloons higher! Seriously phenomenal.
Bagan is seriously a place of magic. I think it’s the first time that I’ve felt I was truly experiencing history, and that I was able to explore the unknown of a new place. Along with the temples, we saw oxes, and goats. Farmers working in their fields. We passed through a little village! All things I hadn’t really been able to get up close and personal with until this point. It was beyond satisfying. In fact, it was satisfying me in ways that I didn’t know I had been craving for!
Beautiful Bagan, you will not be forgotten any time soon. And that’s a promise.